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A Critique of Legislative Monitoring Websites

Submitted by on March 30, 2011 – 6:02 amNo Comment

What legislative monitoring can learn from #InternetNecesario

In October 2009 Alejandro Pisanty of the Internet Society of Mexico caught wind that the Chamber of Deputies (one of Mexico’s two legislative bodies) would soon vote on a three percent tax on Internet access in Mexico. The Chamber of Deputies did not consult civil society or technology professionals in order to have a better understanding of the likely impact of an Internet tax. They based their proposal on the simple fact that wealthy households are more likely to have Internet access than poor households, and so this was a mechanism to generate government revenue from Mexico’s upper class. However, they did not take into consideration that such a tax would make Internet access even more out-of-reach for poor and middle-class Mexicans, or that there is a direct correlation between greater broadband penetration and greater economic productivity.

Just one day before the Chamber of Deputies was set to vote on the proposed tax, Pisanty penned an blog post with the admittedly dull title “Opposition to special taxes on telecommunications and Internet services.” He then did what most Mexican bloggers do after they finish a blog post: he published a message on Twitter asking his followers to read the article. Immediately, the Mexican Twitter community balked at the Congress’ characterization of Internet access as a luxury. Within just a few hours some creative Twitter users began to use the hashtag #internetcesario, or “the internet is a necessity.”

The next day the Chamber of Deputies – oblivious to the nascent protest forming online – voted on the proposed tax and signed it into law — yet another catalyst for the mushrooming protest. Without any leader, without any NGO spearheading the effort, a new type of advocacy campaign was formed around a Twitter hashtag. Within just two days WhatTheHashtag estimated that the protest had gathered around 35,000 tweets from more than 7,000 participants. Well known Mexican blogs like Crítica Pura and ALT1040 played an important function: they translated the legislative proposal from legal jargon to language that can be understood by everyone. A fast-paced dialog among bloggers also helped craft a united message of why an Internet tax is harmful to all Mexicans. A group of technologists worked together to quickly develop platforms like InternetNecesario.org to aggregate and visualize the flood of messages that discussed the debate. Some high profile Twitter users like León Felipe Sánchez, Pizu, and Andres Lajous used their political contacts to reach out to senators and deputies in order to use the talking points that emerged from the blogosphere to explain why a tax on Internet access in Mexico is harmful.

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@ricardozamora, @lion05, @pizu, @sinkdeep, @albertoserdan, @apisanty, @andreslajous and others explaining to Mexican legislators why a tax on Internet access is harmful. Video of the discussion available on YouTube.

At the same time, to make sure that this campaign was visible offline as well as online, a group of protesters met at Parque Hundido to write messages on the back of their laptops for Congress and the public to read:

The campaign was grounded in careful research – constantly citing reports from Harvard University, CIDE, ITAM, and Oxford – but it attracted widespread participation by maintaining a tone of humor and lightheartedness. Not only did the Senate reverse the proposed tax, but a new generation of young Mexicans experienced their first protest movement.

There are several lessons for effective legislative monitoring that we can take away from the #InternetNecesario experience:

  • Legislative monitoring is dependent on monitoring legislation. If Alejandro Pisanty and the Internet Society of Mexico had not been monitoring proposed legislation from the Chamber of Deputies, it is likely that the tax would have passed without anyone taking much notice.
  • It is important that proposed legislation is reviewed by relevant experts. A legislative monitoring group, for example, might not have expertise in agricultural policy, but they can reach out to the right experts using Twitter and other social networks.
  • It is important to translate legal jargon into accessible language. If Pisanty had simply linked to the proposed legislation, it is doubtful that many Mexicans would have understood the implications.
  • Good branding and clear communication is essential in order to transform legislative monitoring into effective advocacy. “InternetNecesario” was a smart way to easily communicate the essence of the campaign.
  • It is better to reach out to allies in Congress and work with them than to criticize and assume that they are your enemies.
  • Advocacy campaigns need to be based on good research, but to gain wider participation they also need to be fun, humorous, and inclusive.

A summary of legislative monitoring platforms

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As I mentioned in our last post, which features an interview with Diego Ernesto Díaz Iturbe of Impacto Legislativo, we are currently involved in a series of meetings with congressional monitoring groups in Latin America to discuss the role of technology in legislative transparency and monitoring. Sometimes this use of technology is referred to as parliamentary informatics, and the most prominent examples include OpenCongress in the United States, TheyWorkForYou in the United Kingdom, and VoteWatch.eu for the European Parliament. In Latin America such congressional monitoring platforms include:

There are also a couple of forthcoming legislative monitoring platforms including Congreso Interactivo in Argentina and an updated version of Curul 501, which is being developed by Fundar and Citivox.

Many of these platforms – such as Congreso Visible, Congresso Aberto, and Impacto Legislativo – began as graduate school research projects. They were tools that aimed to develop metrics to measure the effectiveness of the legislative process and particular legislators. Later they would develop into public websites and independent NGO’s. Each platform is unique, but we can make a rough list of their various functions and tactics:

  • Look up representatives by postal code – in our interview with Diego Ernesto Díaz Iturbe, he said that one of the main goals of the Impacto Legislativo is simply to allow users to find out who their representatives are by entering their ID number or postal code. Unfortunately, Impacto Legislativo is one of the only Latin American websites with this functionality. Sites like Vota Inteligente and 500 sobre 500 allow users to search for representatives by political party, but not geographic district.
  • Create profiles of legislators – this is probably the most common function of legislative monitoring platforms, though the profiles vary across websites. Examples of legislator profiles can be seen at Vota Inteligente, Congreso Visible, Vote Na Web, and Impacto Legislativo. Legislator profiles usually contain such basic information as age, gender, years in office, political party, web site, and email address. Some sites like Vota Inteligente keep track of the legislator’s attendance and voting records. Others like Congreso Visible allow users to leave comments on profiles. Vota Na Web permits users to compare their votes on legislation with the votes of their representative (and others in Brazil’s Congress). Dejemos de Hacernos Pendejos implores users to adopt a legislator and to write regular updates about his/her work.
  • Statistical analysis of votes, attendance, and congressional demographics – Congreso Visible and Vota Inteligente are especially proactive about providing users with graphs and visualizations about the activities and demographic makeup of their national congress. For example, here is a breakdown of the 2010 – 2014 Chilean Parliament by political party, gender, age, and incumbency. Similarly, we can visualize Colombian legislators by gender, party, and birthplace. Both sites also visualize the voting and attendance records of individual legislators as well as the party breakdown of votes on particular bills.
  • Educate users about the legislative process – it is often difficult to understand the implication of proposed legislation unless we understand the legislative process, which differs in each country. Both Fundar and Congreso Visible attempt to do educate their users with a quarterly newsletter that explains the legislative process and describes recent activity. Only Vota Inteligente has an entire section – with an attractive infographic and (strangely soundless) video – to explain how the legislative process works in Chile. Vota Inteligente also provides a helpful glossary to define political and legal jargon, but unfortunately those definitions are not linked to when the terms appear in texts and proposals.
  • Track new legislation as it is proposed, debated, and voted on – once again Congreso Visible, Vota Inteligente, and Vote Na Web are the leaders in tracking legislation as it moves through the Congress. Congreso Visible, for example, has a list of all proposed bills with a brief synopsis, the date it was introduced, a section for comments, and an analysis of votes (once a bill is finally voted on). Proposed bills can be filtered by status, year, topic, and type of legislation. Vota Inteligente’s format is different: it lists proposed legislation on a weekly basis. Unlike Congreso Visible, we are not able to filter legislation based on topic or year, but we are told who authored each bill and their names link handily to their profiles. Unlike Vota Inteligente, where the description of each legislative bill comes directly from the official congressional website, Vote Na Web takes the descriptions for each bill from the official gazette, but then translates each bill into everyday Portuguese so that most Brazilians can understand the proposal. Legislative proposals can be filtered by tags, political parties, and, interestingly, which proposals have attracted the most user votes, comments, and views. The objective of Vote Na Web is to compare how internet users vote on legislation with how their representatives vote on the same bills.

A brutal critique of legislative monitoring platforms

Legislative monitoring websites fit squarely into our definition of civic information: they provide a layer of information between the government and citizens in order to bring about more civic participation and to hold politicians more accountable for their actions. But how useful is that layer of information? How is it being used by citizens? Is it informing the work of civil society? Is there more citizen oversight of proposed legislation? Have attendance records of legislators improved after being made more transparent? These are all questions that require further research. But to be provocative, I would like offer several points of criticism of most legislative monitoring platforms as they stand today.

I can’t get involved if I don’t know how it works

Too many legislative monitoring websites assume that there users are knowledgeable about how the legislative process works. Each piece of content – a senator’s profile, a proposed bill, an attendance record – should offer some basic context about how it fits into the larger legislative process. It is worrying that only Vota Inteligente clearly explains the legislative process, and even there it is not even available from the front page.

Tell me who my representatives are – and what they are up to – as soon as I visit the page

Impacto Legislativo is the only Latin American legislative monitoring website that allows users to find their representatives by simply entering their postal code. While this is a good start that other websites should emulate, the next step is to map representatives by IP address. When a legislative monitoring website detects my IP address it should show me special content based on who my representatives are, according to the geographic location of my IP address.

Copy and paste does not add value

The vast majority of content on legislative monitoring websites simply copy and paste what is already available on the official congressional websites. While it is true that this content is usually then displayed more elegantly, and that at times there is added functionality such as user comments, it doesn’t add value to simply take a large amount of data from one website and dump it on another. In some cases it might be better to work with the technical teams of official congressional websites to improve the user experience. In fact, right now the official Mexican government website Canal de Congreso offers much more comprehensive information about the activities of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies than any of the legislative monitoring groups in Mexico. There is live streaming video of sessions, an archive on YouTube, and constant updates on Facebook and Twitter. Similarly, in Chile, the government-funded National Library of Congress does an excellent job informing citizens of recent legislative activities with the help of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Podcasts, and Blogs.

There is not a lack of information; there is a lack of communication

In spite of the ugliness of the Mexican Senate website, it certainly is not lacking information. Rather, there is a lack of communication between the Senate as it discusses complicated issues (such as imposing a tax on the Internet) and the experts (such as the Internet Society of Mexico) who can help weigh in. Unfortunately, most legislative monitoring websites are more focused on organizing and visualizing large amounts of information rather than serving as bridges between debates in congress and the NGOs that can advocate on behalf of citizens.

We must incentivize and recognize good behavior

In Andrew Mandelbaum’s forthcoming report on the work of parliamentary monitoring organizations (PMOs), he notes that “when PMOs’ activities confirm public cynicism of their parliaments, they may do more to undermine democratic governance than to advance it.” It is important to remember that these platforms are not only to point out corruption, but that they aim to improve governance. As Stewart Brand says, “governments come and go, but governance is a much longer process.” Legislative monitoring websites should be just as eager to point out the positive and innovative work of legislators as their missteps and mistakes. Directorio Legislativo, for example, gives out an annual reward to the “most innovative representative.” In the United States the Gold Mouse Project recognizes those legislators with the most informative and easy-to-use websites.

We need hives of expertise swarming around each legislative proposal

We can think of the #InternetNecesario campaign as a hive of expertise that swarmed around a legislative proposal until legislators were better informed and the citizenry was more engaged. While this takes place commonly around issues related to the internet (such as ACTA in Mexico, the Marco Civil in Brazil and Fair Use in Chile), we see it far less with issues such as education, healthcare, water policy, security, and immigration.

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The best model I have seen so far to attract small communities of experts to discuss legislative proposals is PopVox, which is based in the United States. PopVox recognizes that other websites like Open Congress and GovTrack.us already track, describe, and annotate proposed legislation. In contrast, PopVox provides a one-sentence explanation of each bill and then lists NGOs that support and oppose the bill. Listed by their social media popularity, each organization is invited to explain why they support or oppose the bill. Similar to Vote Na Web in Brazil, users can then vote for or against the bill, and their results are attractively mapped by congressional district. Those who vote can also leave a short comment either in support or opposition of the bill. Not every citizen is able to follow every piece of proposed legislation, and unfortunately there is no way to subscribe to recent legislation about a particular topic like healthcare. This is possible on OpenCongress, however, which even allows users to create a dynamic badge to put on their websites that links to the five latest bills about a particular topic.

To conclude, while a graphical representation of legislators by their birthplace is interesting, it does not help make the legislative process more transparent or hold it more accountable. Legislative monitoring platforms have been consumed by the enormous technical task of organizing and visualizing giant amounts of information. They have been less successful at serving as a bridge between the debates in congress and the expertise among citizens and civil society.

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